Vestibular Syndrome, or Vestibular Disease as it is sometimes known, primarily affects older dogs and often mimics the symptoms of a stroke. The vestibular system is the sense of the body in space. The system’s receptors are in the inner ear. Information from the receptors is processed in the cerebellum. This condition is the result of inflammation of the nerves which join the cerebellum and the inner ear. This is the connection that controls balance. The disease creates a sort of “sea sick” sensation. This could lead to nausea and vomiting.
The symptoms include loss of balance, head tilting, rapid eye movements and problems with facial nerves. These can also indicate serious problems such as stroke, brain tumour and head trauma. It is important to know which a dog is suffering from.
Vestibular Syndrome is not life threatening. The other possibilities may be. Diagnostic tests can be done to determine the true nature of the illness. Sometimes a veterinarian will opt to wait a brief period of time to see if the problem seems to be resolving on its own.
There are a variety of causes of vestibular disease. A common cause is an ear infection. This can cause the inflammation that results in the disease. Hypothyroidism is another cause. Treatment can resolve the underlying cause and thus the vestibular dysfunction. Toxicity is another common cause. Ear drops should never be used without the specific direction of a veterinarian. Malignant tumours in the inner or brain can also cause the problem as can encephalitis which is an inflammation of the brain. Vestibular Syndrome can also be idiopathic in origin. This means that it has happened for no apparent reason.
Vestibular Syndrome will resolve on its own in a matter of weeks. During that time period, it is important to help your dog manage the symptoms. You may need to hand feed small amounts of food. If your pet is having trouble eating, you can use easy to digest foods such as baby food or other soft foods. You may also need to elevate water and food bowls to make them easier to access for your dog. You can also help by massaging your dog’s neck and shoulders. This will stimulate acupressure points which will help in getting back physical control. Until mobility improves, you may need to help your dog get from place to place. Lingering problems may occur but dogs usually learn to compensate for them in one way or another.
The following video is a good example of the symptoms of Vestibular Disease. In this video the dog is lay down but if they are on their feet at the time of an attack, they are usually unsteady. The tilt of the head and rapid eye movement can be seen clearly in this clip.